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“Love never dies”. Art during Oscar Wilde鈥檚 England. By Iko Ouro Preto

A brilliant exposition opened in Paris this month of November.

The Aesthetics, a mid 19th century movement that even if never clearly defined a style, came to influence art in the following century and beyond with their a quest of new sensations, a revolution in perception and soul alike.

Determined to move away from the ugliness and materialism of their day, this band of radically engaged artists rebelled against the rigid Victorian Academism under the banner of Art for Art鈥檚 sake, proposing a new idealisation of art and beauty.

From the 1860s to the last decadent decade of Queen Victoria’s reign, this movement is seen through the emblematic works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde.

Painters, poets and decorators passionately defined an artistic mood freed from the principles of order and Victorian morality, and allowed the expression of sensuality to prevail.

They all united in a quest to combine artistic creation and lifestyle, a quest that found fertile areas of expression in photography, the decorative arts, literature and fashion.

It was the age of Aesthetic romantics. It became a rallying call for a younger generation of disciples, amongst whom; the most prominent would be Oscar Wilde.

Remembered today as a dramatist and wit, in his lifetime Wilde was notorious as the spokesman of this daring art movement and its bold declaration that art exists solely to create beauty with no moral purpose whatsoever.

Wilde said : 鈥淎 dreamer can find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

It was an age of hedonism, of extravagances and depravity. Art that simply offered visual and sentimental delight. Pure poetry or beautiful pictures that had no need to tell stories, preach sermons, or rely upon sentimental clich茅s.

An art self-consciously absorbed in itself, aware of the past but created for the present, and existing only to be beautiful.

The emphasis was on elegance and often showed heavy Japanese influence. The opening of the East by the convention of Kanagawa, 1854, ended Japan鈥檚 long period of self imposed isolation. Supplanting a largely fantastical Japan of the imaginary by real Japanese artefacts, these objects were avidly studied by artists, greatly influencing Edward Godwin in furniture designing.

As the movement rapidly evolved, it also revealed its dark side. The hero of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray destroys lives in his pursuit of beauty without limits.

Indeed most aesthetic poetry dwelled upon the subject of sensual love, lust and cruelty, degenerate Femmes fatales and the theme of blood, punishments and death – sorely lacking what the Victorians described as 鈥榤oral fibber鈥.

Writing in that age of stern hypocrisy and repression, Walter Pater, who was also Wilde鈥檚 tutor in Oxford, gleefully expounds on the sexual adventures of the great Renaissance artists, openly praising gay desire.

His febrile vision of art culminates in a bizarre description of the Mona Lisa: “Like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”

Pater concludes that the purpose of life is to pursue sensual beauty and live in the moment. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”.

Choosing as their models women whose looks and lifestyles where at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure and feminity, these painters created an entirely new type of beauty.

When Fredric Leighton painted Nanna Risi (la Pavonia) – with her sultry Roman features and glossy black hair, neither of which conformed to stereotypical notions of genteel good looks – it was a social scandal. Oscar Wilde reacted saying 鈥楢n idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.鈥

Likewise, Algernon Swinburnes treatment of masochist sexual themes whipped a storm of critical abuse. Considered Unmanly Manhood, decadent and shamelessly vulgar, they were loathed by the society.

It was 鈥渢he fleshy school of controversy鈥. Many, if not most, objected to art for arts sake and deplored the absence of religious sentiments and virtue.

Oscar Wilde personified the movement in it鈥檚 fullest. When asked to explain reports that he had paraded down Piccadilly in London carrying a lily, long hair flowing, Wilde replied, “It’s not whether I did it or not that’s important, but whether people believed I did it”.

Wilde believed that the artist should hold forth higher ideals, and that pleasure and beauty would replace utilitarian ethics.

Even as the movement widened, it鈥檚 ideas brought scant public support for what, to many observers, was deemed a perverse and immoral artistic clique.

Indeed, The prevalent bourgeois mentality reacted fiercely, for the most part they characterised the Aesthetics as obscene, viewed with suspicion and often downright hostility, to which Wilde would retort 鈥楢lways forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.鈥

In the end, these adventurers were Victorians, and pure hedonism was never going to be simple for them. Thus, the culmination of the aesthetic movement in Britain was to be a golden age of horror fiction that began with Gray’s portrait.

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel popularised aesthetic Victorian decadence in its most glorious personification, Count Dracula. Sex, death and everlasting beauty pushed the lingering morality of the Victorian age inward 鈥 in the single beds of the aesthetes 鈥 to feast on macabre visions of sin.

This debate would continue to reverberate throughout the period and come to fore again as the pivotal issue during Oscar Wildes trials, until the final decadent phase of the movement in the 1890鈥檚.

Oscar Wilde who became the high priest of the movement, defied the age until finally it destroyed him, convicting him for homosexual “crimes”, imprisoning him, then leaving him to聽eke away his final years in Paris, Saint Germain.

Few artists or writers have influenced the society of their times and beyond as much as the Aesthetics.

Across Europe its passion for聽flowers and vampires, decor and desire can be glimpsed in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Klimt’s聽Kiss or Damien Hirst鈥檚 sliced animals.

Its legacy weaves through modern times in the defiance of dandies from Salvador Dal铆 to Freddie Mercury鈥檚 Queen, to David Bowie and or even Kurt Cobain鈥檚 Nirvana.

Yet, unfortunately, today art is moving away from beauty, becoming a statement, either political or social.

Propelled by armies of Nouveaux-riches with little sense of aestheticism, they stink the market with easy money deforming norms of beauty with mediocre taste. The major art fairs of today vomit innumerable objects which are, quite frankly, incomprehensible, and frequently just simply ugly.

Nowadays Critics seems enchanted with their own perspectives, oblivious of the merits of the oeuvres. Aesthetical beauty seems to be an afterthought.

We can still be provoked by the Victorian聽modernist hauteur: “All art is聽quite useless”.

Maybe one day, once again, we can have art for art鈥檚 sake.

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Blek the rat, por Iko Ouro Preto

For most of modern age, street intervention has not been considered a valid art form. Denigrated by establishment, despised and frequently loathed, it wasn鈥檛 until recently that insiders re-evaluated their positions on what was formally considered dirty art, or maybe not art at all.

Some years ago when an art dealer in London auctioned a piece, Brad Pitt was amongst the first lining up paying thousands of Dollars for a slab of public wall. How Brad Pitt would take this chunk of concrete away with him was left to the buyer.


The intelligentsia, baffled, began re-assessing their position, and ever so reluctantly, their perception swung.


Unwittingly, the age of democratisation of art had begun.


One of the pioneers was Blek le rat. Born in 1952 in a 聽鈥渂ourgeois” suburb of Paris from a culturally mixed background, his father an architect of Jewish decent, his mother Chinese, from the offset, Blek was a most unlikely candidate.


In the early 70鈥檚, Blek went to New York to study architecture, for the first time stepping out of his cocooned world of privilege.


“At the university,” he explains, “my teachers were revolutionary Trotskyites; they taught me much more than art. I was learning about another world.”

Fascinated by the vast array of graffiti and tagging on the NY subway network, Blek felt 鈥榠lluminated鈥, a feeling of social awareness hitting him like a freight train.

Soon afterwards on a family trip to Italy, he saw a stencilled portrait of Mussolini amongst WWII ruins. That inspired him to create a life size silhouette of a rat running along the street.

鈥楻ats are the only free animals in the city鈥, says Blek, 鈥榓nd one that spreads the plague everywhere, just like street art鈥.

Blek le rat wasn鈥檛 the first to develop stencil graffiti art, that honour would fall on John Falker who, in 1978, feeling cramped in his Long Island studio space, began pervasively creating his imagery on nearby underpasses, but Blek is credited with inventing life-size stencils and basic lettering in pictorial art.

In 1981 he began painting in Paris. French Police revealed his identity when he was arrested while working on a replica of Caravaggio鈥檚 Madonna and child.

Blec le rat was exposed, his name, Xavier Prou, despite his efforts, became publicly known.

Blec soon realised the only way to evade future capture was to adopt extensive stencilling as a means to speed up his graffiti. Inadvertently, a new era of 鈥榞uerrilla art鈥 was throttled onto us.

鈥淯rban art is there to be inclusive.鈥 He says, 鈥淏y bringing our work to the masses within the urban landscape, on the streets, we are including everyone.”


British graffiti legend Bansky has openly acknowledged Blek’s influence stating, “every time I think I’ve painted something slightly original, I find out that Blek Le Rat has done it as well, only twenty years earlier.”


The Godfather of stencil art, Blek le Rat, an immensely creative artist, is a giant amongst his peers, even if the current generation of graffiti fans will, for the most part, neglect to mention him.

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